Sunday, September 09, 2007

He's a real nowhere man, sitting in his nowhere land, making all his nowhere plans for nobody

The fourth season of Lost won't start for another five months, so it's sort of a dry spell as far as news for the show goes. The only things floating around are the announcement that the third season will be available on Blu-ray, and the release of the first complete trailer for the next-gen video game (both of which I'll be able to take advantage of once I get a PS3...unless I buy an XBox 360 instead...but that's a debate for another post).

But there is an interesting story in Chicago magazine about the show's originator, Jeffery Lieber. When an ABC executive's whim became an impassioned demand for a Castaway-like show about people stranded on a deserted island, Lieber was the shopworn screenwriter they turned to. And while they loved his original concepts, his first draft -- titled Nowhere -- was met with antipathy. His frantic rewrites did nothing to appease the suits, and the execs at Disney pitched the project to Alias creator J.J. Abrams. Of course, the rest of the story is well-known: Abrams decided what the show needed was a supernatural, mysterious sheen, co-wrote a brand-new pilot with Alias veteran Damon Lindelof, and then turned the show completely over to Lindelof and Carlton Cuse, who crafted it into a masterpiece of serial storytelling and the best television show of the last ten years.

Lieber is painted in the story as something of a tragic figure -- he was the genesis of the project, and created the bare bones of some of the characters, but it was taken from him and totally revamped. His name appears first in the "Created by" credit on every episode, but it's a credit he had to fight for, vigorously. Lieber bemoans his fate, noting with sadness that his work on Lost is clearly his best-known accomplishment, but he's responsible for of none its success, admitting, "I had nothing to do with it."

Personally, I think it's bullshit. Lieber's original concept for Nowhere had very, very little to do with the pilot Abrams and Lindelof wrote, aside from the basic premise (which came from an executive at ABC, not Lieber) and a few character archetypes (which were really pretty obvious choices, anyway -- who wouldn't have decided to put a pregnant woman and a drug addict on that island?).

And second, it's clear (at least to me) that his concept for the show wouldn't have worked. His pitch was for "ultrarealism" -- essentially, Lord of the Flies. Fine. And he makes it in clear in his script (fragments of which are including with the article) that the idea of being rescued would not be a plotpoint. So what does that leave? A story about finding food. A story about finding water. A story about the drug addict going sober. A story about the pregnant woman having her baby. And then? You go right for the Lord of the Flies playbook, with endless squabbling and violence between survivors. And you've got nothing else. That's not enough to carry a season, let alone an entire show.

Lost, on the other hand, improves upon Nowhere in every single respect. First, the pilot wisely begins in medias res, after the plane has already crashed. This not only throws the audience in with the characters -- confused, disoriented and (gasp) lost -- but sets up the entire theme of the show. If Lost is truly about one thing week after week, it's about discovery. Each episode is about uncovering a mystery, whether it be a mystery of the island, or of the plane crash, or of the history (or future!) of one of the characters. The flashback structure (created by Abrams and Lindelof) has become the backbone of the show, a backbone that Nowhere was missing.

And then there's the simple fact that you can't argue with success -- as I noted, Lost is the best television show of the last ten years. Lieber, by his own admission, is in no way responsible for that success...but that didn't stop him from fighting for and receiving a cut of the credit and, thus, the money. He receives royalties in "the low six figures" annually from Lost, and will get more once the show is syndicated. Meanwhile, Lindelof and Abrams get less money combined* and slave on the show week after week and have turned it into the exalted program it remains today.

So here's Lieber's beef, in a nutshell: He was paid to write a script. He wrote it. It sucked. ABC gave to it more talented writers. They created a masterful behemoth. Everyone gets money and awards. Lieber sues and gets on-screen credit (the first name in the credit). He also gets royalties every time the show airs, even though he hasn't contributed to anything that was even shot, let alone aired. And that credit has allowed him to get his foot in the door to greater career advancement.

Boo fucking hoo.

*The article says that Lieber gets 60 percent of that money, while Lindelof and Abrams share 40 percent. This is just the money for the "Created by" credit, though -- one would think Lindelof gets an additional salary from ABC for his role as executive producer, plus any royalties from credits for writing individual episodes.

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